C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters was first published in serial form, and was published as a book in 1942. It’s a brief, apologetic novel exploring Christianity. It takes the form of 31 letters written from an administrative demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a minor demon, Wormwood. Screwtape is guiding Wormwood in the corruption of a human soul, a man known simply as “The Patient”. It’s heavily ironic satire, taking the perspective of evil in exploring the nature of the Christian life and salvation.
Max Mclean and Jeffrey Fiske have adapted Screwtape for the stage, and the production is presented by Fellowship for Performing Arts. This intellectual source material could make for a ponderous stage production, but the show, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, is terrific – animated and engaging. In place of dramatic tension it serves up a thick irony.
In order to externalize the material, Mr. McLean and Mr. Fiske have Screwtape dictate his letters to his secretary. There are two performers: Mr. McLean himself playing Screwtape, who has all the lines, and Karen Eleanor Wight as his secretary, who vocalizes but never speaks.
Mr. McLean gives a brilliant performance as “His Abysmal Sublimity” Screwtape. In lesser hands the role would be deadly, but Mr. McLean, who also directs the show, keeps us absorbed throughout the show’s 90 minutes and 15 scenes. He’s always commenting on the character, never letting us forget that Screwtape is a personification of evil. He speaks every line with a specific, delicious relish. His imitation of the simpering of a damned soul transforms into a sadistic laugh. He’s a lexicon of animated facial and vocal gestures. “We want catt-le who can finally become foo-oo-oo-ood,” he says, speaking of us humans.
The character is complex, and he progresses through a series of emotions as he reveals himself to us. He’s delirious with joy when war starts. He’s terrified when his nephew reports him to hell’s Secret Police. Best of all, he goes into a frenzied panic when it’s clear that Wormwood is going to lose the soul of The Patient to God, ripping off his smoking jacket and throwing it on the floor.
As Screwtape’s secretary, Ms. Wight is gives a marvelous performance without delivering any lines. She chuckles or screeches as the occasion demands, occasionally gnawing on a bone, and her physicalizations are masterful.
Cameron Anderson’s simple set, with its skulls-and-bones back wall, and Jesse Klug’s spooky lighting are exquisitely hellish. Michael Bevin’s very nice costume designs give Screwtape a military jacket as well as that red smoking jacket, and gives his secretary a body of scales.
Lewis’ religious point is not lost in this adaptation. He’s warning us against complacency in Christianity. “The safest road to hell is the gradual one,” Screwtape tells Wormwood. One of the tempters’ best weapons is “contented worldliness.”
C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is quite an accomplishment, intellectually and emotionally absorbing. Congratulations to Fellowship for Performing Arts on this great show! The company produces theater from a Christian worldview, and it’s good to see this muscular work.